I feel like I am drowning in news at the moment, a sentiment I have heard other people express also. There is so much access to instant information that sometimes it can be incredibly overwhelming. Perhaps we need to step back, take a deep breath, and spend time sitting with the Lord in prayer, listening to what is going on both within our troubled hearts and within His Sacred Heart. The world has always been a complicated place and there have been messes, conflicts, natural disasters and the workings of evil since the beginning time. This is why God has continually tried to send us help in the form of holy leaders, prophets, and finally His own Son. God is an endless font of mercy and so He is doing everything He can to offer us healing and wisdom, but we have to take the time to cultivate the grace to cope with the things which are beyond us. There is so much beauty and goodness in the world that we have to be careful of falling into the temptation of losing sight of it while simultaneously keeping our eyes open to the temptations and evils which are around us. God knows this is a difficult balancing act, and that is why He continually sends the Holy Spirit to guide us on this perilous, yet incredibly beautiful journey called life.
This past week one of the daily readings from the Old Testament taught a pertinent lesson about coping with evil. The passage I want to highlight is the one about the king of Judah who inherited the throne at the tender age of 18 and made a mess of it immediately. (2 Kings 24:8-17) The enemy who was literally at the gate was the Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar. What facilitated the fall of the people was their collective refusal to listen to the word of God as spoken through Scripture and the prophets. They sat idly while the Temple was dismantled and all the important liturgical vessels were broken up and taken away by their plunderers, (they let their values be literally thrown aside). Then, three months into the young king’s reign most of the people were taken away into Babylon as exiles: “…all the officers and men of the army… all the craftsmen and smiths. None were left among the people of the land except the poor.” (2 Kings 24:14) The king, his mother, his ministers, and his entire retinue were exiled also. Only the poor remained while Nebuchadnezzar put a new king on the throne, Zedekiah, who would eventually allow the last bit of Israel to fall into dust.
Though passages such as the one in the Second Book of Kings might seem to imply that the situation in the world is solely our fault, we need to keep things in perspective. Yes, our sinfulness and destructive behaviors do lead us far from God and therefore into dire times, but sometimes evil happens because it has gotten so big without anyone noticing for so long that it is no longer in our control. We do need to have some accountability, but it is not productive to become so stupefied with grief that we become stuck, nor is it always the case that we brought things upon ourselves; evil wants to have its way no matter what we do. An example of this is also in the Old Testament, about 500 years after the events of the Babylonian Exile, when the people remained faithful yet the situation of being oppressed by another pagan nation was so bad that it made the Exile pale in comparison. This time they suffered without having gotten far from God. It made no sense to them, but they still remained strong and brave in the midst of such tragedy. That is why we need to keep our world and the ravages of evil in perspective. Sometimes things happen that are so far out of our control that we would be foolish to sit around with nothing but self-recrimination and hand-wringing. There is a better way, and it is the way of Jesus. The key to seeing this is found in the above quoted verse: ‘only the poor remained in Jerusalem' when everyone else was deported. The gospel as taught by Jesus teaches us that the poor are near to Jesus’ heart. And it teaches us that to be like Jesus we need to embrace the simplicity of heart which He embraced.
As Christians, we cannot lose sight that if we live as Jesus taught we should identify with the poor. This means that it is important to do more than only give to the poor in a material way. Rather, it is central to the gospel that we have the heart of the poor. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He also said the blessed (or holy) are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those willing to be persecuted for the sake of justice. (Matthew 5:3-10) With a closer look at each of the Beatitudes it becomes apparent that at their core is the humility, or poverty of heart, which is necessary to know we all need the help of God before anything can be done about the situation around us. In spending time with Jesus, learning to imitate Him, our holiness grows so that we mourn over the injustices of the world, the suffering we witness in others and in ourselves, and (especially) we mourn our own participation in injustice through our sinfulness: that is, we recognize that we must accept responsibility for our own sin before we can work against the sin around us in the world. This stance will enable a growth in humility and meekness, which does not mean to become lily-livered, but rather it means to acknowledge our powerlessness without God.
Living the Christian life means to adopt a disposition of radical openness to God by becoming poor, which means letting go of all the obstacles which stand in the way of our relationship with God and in becoming humble servants. Jesus told us exactly how to do this; there was nothing vague about His message of how to become holy and how to walk with Him. It is done by growing in purity of heart, which is to say, holiness, which calls us into a radical respect for others, even when we disagree with their agenda or behavior. (That, by the way, is what mercy is.) We grow in holiness when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, learning how to mix justice with mercy and discernment with action. We grow in holiness when we work for peace, and also when we stick to our values, even at the risk of suffering, willing to be persecuted for the sake of the gospel. This does not mean we will be arrested or tortured, though the sobering reality is that some people in the world will. But it does mean we are willing to stand out as Christians and that we are willing to be ridiculed for living honestly, walking in truth, attending religious services, reading our Bibles, doing good works (such as the corporal works of mercy from Matthew 25), returning kindness for evil, keeping hold of our tongue and withholding rude gestures when we are angered, refraining from gossip, and refusing to participate in things which go against the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the message of the Old Testament writer who pointed out that “none were left among the people of the land except the poor.” Hooray for the poor who stayed behind and prayed for those who had suffered, for themselves, and for those to come! If not for them the faith would have been lost. And if not for their spiritual descendants, those who accepted Jesus when He came, we would not be here either. It is the poor who will lead the way: a Little Child, (as we heard in Advent), poor fishermen and farmers, (the first disciples), and the many men and women who persevered through trial and tribulation all while glorifying God for His richness in beauty, mercy, and love.
This is our call: to be as the poor. We do not have to give everything away in order to become monetarily poor, but we do need to be generous both within our material means and especially with our love. We do need to be humble, poor in spirit, to have our eyes continually opened to the power of Jesus and His mercy. We always need to have the vision to see what needs healing, but always while having gratitude for all the blessings we have and which we want to share and preserve for those who come after us. We need to ask God to help us keep everything in balance, neither becoming arrogant such that we lose our horror at sin, nor complacent, becoming paralyzed in the face of evil around us. Rather we need to rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us to withstand temptation, to help us live the gospel which is our roadmap to holiness, and to never let go of Jesus who will guide us all home to Heaven one day.
May we be people of the Beatitudes, becoming pure of heart! May we continually pray for guidance, wisdom, and the grace to persevere with humility, but with the boldness to stand firm in our beliefs! May we act with justice and mercy, having the discernment to know how to combine both of those graces! May we have the eyes to never stop seeing the beauty in the world because we are distracted by the ugly things! And may we be as the poor, holding on to Jesus who let go of everything in order to save us! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, clinging to nothing but Him. Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
All the photos are mine. This first one was taken in Little Rock, Arkansas on a nature trail. I chose this photo because it reminded me of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus said for us to look at the birds of the air who do not sow or reap yet are taken care of by the Father; and again later in the passage Jesus said for us to look at the flowers of the field which do not work or spin yet are arrayed in splendor. (Matthew 6:26-29) Jesus was speaking of the radical poverty of spirit needed to rely totally on the Father. Both the bird and the flowers in this photo speak of this passage.
The next photo was taken in Big Bend National Park in west Texas. I chose this one because of the starkness of the scene. I was thinking of the Babylonian Exile and the Israelites' march through the desert to arrive in a foreign land. There is no greater poverty than having lost everything, including ones homeland. If you look closely, you can see mountains in the distance, suggesting a land far off.
Next is a painting by Bl. Fra Angelico, called The Sermon on the Mount. The desert-like spot, the seemingly bare mountain where they are sitting, is almost shocking, but to me it says that the words of Jesus are teaching them to see more than is obvious. He is teaching them to see mercy, beauty, compassion, love and all that God desires for us to have in our interior landscape, as well as that which He is teaching us to see in others. Life will come into the desert of hearts that are far from God when we allow Jesus to enter.
Next are two panels from a larger work called Viriditas: Finding God in All Things, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. In the far left panel is St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata. St. Francis was often called 'Il Poverello' (the Poor One) because of his radical embracing of 'Lady Poverty.' He truly lived what Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount. In the panel to the right are St. Hildegard, the Child Jesus, and St. Ignatius Loyola. St. Hildegard lived a poverty of spirit that allowed her to open her soul so greatly to God that she became a mystic who definitely had the eyes to see what so few could see. St. Ignatius is famous for teaching us to see God in all things especially through his Spiritual Exercises. I chose this icon because of the confluence of the holy people depicted. All are about seeing God in everything; all are about poverty of spirit. Notice the cross which is sprouting new life. The Christ Child is reaching up for it as if to say that His death upon that cross will sprout forth the new life of salvation. He is the Little Child that leads us. You can find the diptych and the entire work at http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/william-hart-mcnichols.html?tab=artworkgalleries&artworkgalleryid=584247.
Last is a photo of a cactus in bloom taken at Big Bend National Park in Texas. I chose it because there is much life in the desert. In the midst of barrenness there is the potential for life; in fact, there is much beauty in any desert. There is a wealth in being poor. That is, when we make room for God, His beauty can take root within us. There is no greater wealth than that.
Heart Speaks to Heart